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Rice Lake use soars after lake renovation

  • 9/17/2019 12:25:00 PM
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LAKE MILLS, Iowa - Trevis and Kris Erickson saw as business opportunity emerge 150 feet from the front of their new home.

The couple had moved to a place on a busy blacktop about halfway between Rice Lake and Silver Lake where they watched a steady stream of boats go back and forth between the lakes. Fishing had been on the uptick at Rice Lake since the lake renovation in 2015 and anglers had to drive to either Clear Lake or Albert Lea, Minn. to get live bait.

Why wasn’t there a local bait shop? Because before the renovation Rice Lake suffered from poor water quality, a fish population dominated by bullheads and little use.

To fix Rice Lake, the water was lowered before ice up, its fish population was eliminated and the outlet structure was replaced.

Once the lake filled, aquatic plants returned. A mix of yellow perch, bluegills, largemouth bass and walleyes were stocked. Ducks and geese found the high quality vegetation and were drawn like magnets.

Each year since, fishing got better, fish got bigger, ducks poured in and the word got out.

“We got tired of driving to Clear Lake or Albert Lea for bait,” said Trevis Erickson. So, in 2017, they opened Tie 1 on Bait Shop on their acreage offering minnows and night crawlers in the summer and spikes, wax worms and minnows in the winter.

And area anglers are glad they did.

There’s a logbook in the bait shop signed by anglers from surrounding towns, from Northwood and Buffalo Center, from Austin and Albert Lea, Minn., and from Des Moines.

There’s an energy that’s been here since the renovation: fishing, duck hunting, deer and pheasant hunting. Paddling and pleasure boating has increased and bird watchers converge during the spring and fall migration.

“It’s attractive to a lot of people,” said TJ Herrick, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, who along with fisheries biologist Scott Grummer are responsible for managing Rice Lake and the surrounding wildlife area. And, Herrick said, the excellent water quality has been the driver. “We see a lot more people using the lake since the project and that was the goal,” he said.

Today, Rice Lake can get more use in one day than it did in an entire season before it was fixed. The improved water clarity has benefited aquatic plants above and below the water surface to the point that even on the windiest day, there are no whitecaps. It’s common to hear reports of 12-inch perch and an occasional walleye coming through the ice.

“Winter is big for Rice Lake,” Erickson said.

Disappearing Lake

Rice Lake pulled a vanishing act in the early 1900s.

The lakebed was deemed too valuable to remain underwater by the State Highway Commission and was drained so it could be farmed. For nearly 15 years, area farmers struggled to till and crop the former lakebed.

In 1917, the commission referred to the draining of Rice Lake as a failure and wrote that it would be more valuable if the lake was returned and used as a breeding area for water birds. With 800 acres still under the state, they would need to reacquire 300-400 additional acres to secure the land that would be impacted by holding water. Engineers began placing dikes between specific islands to return the 1,200-acre lake to the landscape.

Etcetera

  • Rice Lake Wildlife Area covers about 2,000 acres, including the lake. The timber component consists of shagbark hickories and all of the oaks. That mast production supports a quality deer herd and the small, but ferocious, red squirrel. Red squirrels are about half the size of fox squirrels and are protected – no hunting allowed.
  • Rice Lake was one of the original locations to receive starter flocks of Canada geese as part of the reintroduction program. Today, Canada geese numbers can reach and exceed 10,000.
  • The western quarter of the lake is a waterfowl refuge, closed to all hunting from Sept. 1 through the end of the duck season.
  • In the spring, tens of thousands of speckle-bellies and every species of waterfowl pass through Rice Lake, along with bald eagles, pelicans, cormorants and others on the migration route.
  • Sandhill cranes are nesting here.
  • Rice Lake Golf Course is a semi private 18 hold golf course on the southwest side of the lake, offering a restaurant and full clubhouse services.
  • Rice Lake State Park, near the golf course, extends along the lake shore to the west. It has an open air shelter available for reservation, including a fireplace and picnic tables, a small swimming beach and a new courtesy dock.
  • Including Joyce Slough, there are 32 islands on the complex.
  • The last common loon in Iowa hatched at Rice Lake in 1898.
  • Rice Lake was named after the acres of wild rice growing on the area. The wild rice is gone, but the name stuck.

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